by Roderick Conway Morris

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Archivio di Stato, Lucca
Pilgrims arriving in Rome for the first Jubilee in 1300,
from Giovanni Sercambi's 'Chronicles', c.1400

Globe-Trotting in the Middle Ages

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE, Italy 15 May 2015


The Bargello in Florence is best known as the city's most important repository of Renaissance sculpture. But its first vocation as a museum, in the middle of 19th century, was the arts and applied arts of the Middle Ages.

To celebrate its first 150 years, the Bargello is returning to its roots with a special exhibition, 'The Middle Ages on the Road.'

The show, which runs through June 21, is the fruit of an alliance, established in 2011, of museums of medieval art, comprising the Musée de Cluny in Paris, the Museum Schnütgen in Cologne, the Museu Episcopal at Vic in Catalonia and the Bargello. It was curated by Benedetta Chiesi, Ilaria Ciseri and Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi, and contains over 100 pieces, many unique and rare.

The building itself, originally known as the Palazzo del Popolo, had been the first seat of Florence's republican government in the 13th century. But the palazzo had later become an emblem of the Medici Grand Dukes' autocracy, when it was the headquarters of the 'bargello,' or the chief of police, as well as the city's jail until 1857.

The rediscovery of a frescoed portrait of Dante, attributed to Giotto, in the chapel of the Bargello in 1840 ignited a debate over what use the edifice might be put to in the future. The approach, in 1865, of the 600th anniversary of Dante's birth added fuel to the movement to turn it into a museum: The poet had become by then a symbol of Italy's struggle for liberty and unification, and the building was chosen to host a special exhibition marking the event.

Further impetus was lent by the decision in 1865 to make Florence the new capital of Italy — and in that year, the Bargello became the new nation's first national museum.

These developments coincided with a revived interest in the Middle Ages among European scholars, collectors and artists. The period also had a patriotic resonance in Italy, as the peninsula's independent republics had thrived during that period, before much of the country became subject to centuries of foreign rule.

Travel in the Middle Ages was facilitated by the steady increase in the quality and number of maps available. Venice, Genoa and Palma, Majorca, were the most important producers of portolan maps for seafarers, compiled from the experience of navigators.

The exhibition's opening section, 'Representing the World,' contains the oldest, most securely dated of these, from 1311, and a splendidly decorated and illustrated example almost certainly from the Majorca workshop of Gabriel de Vallesca from around 1440.

There were major advances in cartography on land, too. Ehrard Etzlaub of Nuremberg, Germany, produced a detailed woodblock-print map of Europe that indicated mile-by-mile routes from north to south converging on Rome. It was produced for pilgrims taking part in the Jubilee of 1500. Thousands of maps were printed but only a handful, including the one on display here, have survived.

The second section, 'Saving the Soul: Pilgrims, Preachers and Clerics,' chronicles this European mania for pilgrimages to holy places.

The first Jubilee, which drew some two million pilgrims to Rome in 1300, is evoked in one of the illustrations for Giovanni Sercambi's 'Chronicles,' on loan from Lucca, Italy, showing the endless stream of pilgrims arriving with their staffs, satchels and knapsacks.

A product of this phenomenon were the little 'souvenir' badges made for pilgrims to be sewn into their clothes and headgear, depicting the saints whose tombs they were visiting. Examples are on display of Peter, Paul, Veronica, Notre-Dame de Boulogne and Thomas Becket.

The tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, was second only to Rome as a destination. The saint's symbol, the scallop shell, became the most famous of these badges, made of shells from the beaches of Galicia or reproduced in various metals.

From the end of the 11th century, tens of thousands of men and women went further afield in what might be described as 'armed pilgrimages' to the Holy Land — known after the 13th century as the Crusades — which are the subject of the following section: 'Crusades, Knights and Military Expeditions.'

There is a touching 12th-century sculpture on loan from the Musée Lorrain in Nancy, France, of a wife, Adeline, tightly embracing her husband, Hugo I de Vaudémont, on his departure or, perhaps, his return after an absence of 14 years.

Featured in the next section, 'Traveling for Business: Merchants, Bankers and Messengers,' are an early manuscript of the most famous travel book of the era, Marco Polo's 'Travels'; a rare multicompartment bag for merchants, used for carrying valuables; miniature strongboxes; and messengers' satchels.

Some of these couriers wore colorful enameled ID badges with the equivalent of company logos: three examples here bear the insignia of Florence's Wool Guild, the city's Chamber and Court of Commerce, and the Vatican.

Finally, 'Traveling for Show: Traveling Monarchs and Bridal Processions' is devoted to the luxury end of the medieval travel market, with a rich assortment of expensively decorated trunks and cases, portable altars, chess and backgammon boards, stackable candlesticks in diminishing sizes and folding tripod candlesticks.

Some of the most magnificent journeys undertaken by the upper classes were of the shortest duration, a classic example being the bridal procession to the marital home, which afforded an opportunity to show off expensive wedding gifts. For such occasions, and clearly designed to dazzle rather than to be sat upon, were two extraordinary parade saddles encrusted with courtly love scenes, intricately carved in ivory.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023